Page last updated at 10:15 GMT, Tuesday, 28 July 2009 11:15 UK

Deserting the Highlands and Islands

Hirta, St Kilda
St Kilda was abandoned by its residents in the early 1930s

Depopulation is an age-old issue in the Highlands and Islands that persists today.

In the past, people were driven to seek better lives and jobs during times of poor harvests and famine.

The Clearances saw landowners remove tenants and squatters to make way for large-scale sheep production, or to create sporting estates.

St Kilda - an archipelago 41 miles off the Western Isles - is a prime example of a vulnerable population.

The once thriving community, on the remotest corner of the British Isles, was ravaged by disease before their self-sufficient lifestyle collapsed completely.

In 1726 a man from St Kilda went to visit Harris where he contracted smallpox and died.

The dead man's clothes were sent back home, as they were still in good condition.

The next time the factor visited St Kilda to collect the rent, his vessel sailed past Stac Li, near to Boreray, about four miles to the north of the main island of Hirta.

Hunt birds

There, it collected three men and eight boys who had gone to the stac to hunt birds. They had spent nine months on the tower of rock after the boat from Hirta had failed to return for them.

When they returned to their homes, along with the factor, they found one adult and 18 children alive.

Almost 200 of the native population had died of smallpox, carried to the archipelago on the dead man's clothes.

But St Kilda's rent was valuable to the landlord, MacLeod of Dunvegan, who received £85 Scots (£7 Sterling) yearly from the steward, who would collect that in feathers, meat, seabirds and whatever dairy produce the islanders could spare.

MacLeod was not willing to let that rent stop so he sent families, mainly from Skye but some from Harris as well, to live on St Kilda.

Young couple
Young people leave the region for education and jobs

This brought the names that are forever associated with the islands: MacDonald, Fergusson, MacCrimon, MacKinnon, MacLeod, MacQueen, Gillies and Morrison.

In the 19th Century, a series of tourists began to visit St Kilda, bringing with them ideas to improve the place and St Kildans - known as the Hiortaich - became more dependent on the outside world.

In the 1850s, 42 of the islanders emigrated to Australia, half of them dying on the way.

Until that decade ended, the houses had been built from materials that were easily available on Hirta. Stone walls, and roofs of thatch or turf.

One of the so-called improvements that came from the outside world was 16 new houses that were built in the village in 1860.

These new houses were cold and it was necessary to import coal from the mainland, the supplies of peat not being enough to heat them.

Because of the tourists, the world heard of the St Kilda Parliament, in which the men met each morning to discuss the day's tasks.

They also heard about the islanders' ankles, which were unusually thick and strong, due to their climbing of the cliffs hunting seabirds, which was the basis of their economy.

The winter of 1929 was particularly hard in the island and some of the remaining inhabitants died, many having already left the island to answer the new call of the cities, and the new world.

The remaining 36 islanders wrote to the government asking to be taken off and for new lives on the mainland. The island was abandoned the following year.

Big response

Today, the island is owned by The National Trust for Scotland, and is designated a dual Unesco World Heritage Site.

Depopulation remains a hot topic.

In 2008, a survey was launched in an attempt to uncover what makes young people want to stay or leave the Highlands and Islands.

Run online, the project was aimed at 15 to 30-year-olds who have been brought up, or moved to the area.

Organisers Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), said the region had struggled to retain high numbers of young people.

The survey's researchers were hoping for a big response from young people to find out what they thought about education, jobs, quality of life and communication in the region.

From a situation of out-migration and unemployment, the Highlands now boasts a new dynamism
Des Browne
Secretary of State for Scotland, April 2008

In 2006, research by HIE found thousands of young people moved away from the area once they left school.

Residents who contacted BBC Scotland's news website at the time said lack of further education and job opportunities were among the reasons for leaving.

The following year, it was revealed more women than men had left the Western Isles as its population declined.

Research commissioned by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) also found that fewer women were moving to the islands.

The Hebrides Migration Study said 71% of those coming to the area were male.

Forecasting also predicted there would be more people by 2019 - but fewer schoolchildren, people of working age and women of child-bearing age.

However, on a visit to Inverness last April, the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Des Browne, described the Highlands as "one of modern Britain's success stories".

He told a breakfast meeting of Inverness Chamber of Commerce the region and Inverness was on the up.

Mr Browne said at the time: "From a situation of out-migration and unemployment, the Highlands now boasts a new dynamism.

"A bustling area which many have chosen to make their home in recent years provides evidence of that."

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